Through Scientist’s Eye: Why Measure Stress in Antarctica?
Life in Antarctica can be difficult. For people who are used to being online, leading a rich social life and prefer a varied diet, taking part in a polar expedition can be a life-changing experience. How do polar explorers feel about being deprived of these creature comforts and privileges? Does it stress them out, or does it have a completely opposite effect? These are the questions professor Julie Dobrovolná’s spin-off company Entrant will explore. What does Ms Dobrovolná consider to be the benefits of the expedition, and how has the researcher who will examine the scientists at the polar station prepared for her mission? Read all about it.
Professor, why have you decided to research stress levels in the scientists on the polar expedition?
The connection between isolation and stress has been known for a long time now. However, we approach this issue in a specific way thanks to our thermodynamic modelling of stress. We then compare the results with standard stress-measuring methods based, e.g. on heart rate. The polar researchers will be living in extreme conditions, isolated from the rest of the world and their families; nonetheless, we do not expect all of them to experience stress. On the contrary, it is possible that some of them will calm down in such conditions and will instead consider going back to their regular lives stressful.
What results do you expect, and how will you work with them further?
It is pivotal to monitor the intensity and dynamics of stress reactions depending on the environment. We’ll observe the participants both in Antarctica and in their everyday lives back in the Czech Republic, monitoring the changes in their stress reactions. Thanks to the implementation of machine learning algorithms, we expect to find connections that may not be that obvious.
Both males and females are going on the Masaryk University expedition. Does one’s sex affect stress levels, and can such differences polarize even more under extreme conditions?
No doubt there are some differences, yet it cannot be said that stress reactions are unambiguously influenced by sex. However, surveys revealed that women display both physical and emotional symptoms of stress more frequently. Studies have also shown that women consider interpersonal relations an important stress prevention factor much more often than men. The key question is whether the stress reaction mechanism differs significantly between men and women or whether women just experience stress reactions differently than men. That’s why we’re very interested in how women in isolation experience stress. There are significantly less data regarding the female population, which makes them more valuable.
We have with us also Ms Lucie Ráčková, a doctoral student at the Faculty of Science MU, who will embark on the polar expedition. She will answer the next couple of questions. She studies acute and chronic stress trajectories in isolation experiments at the Department of Experimental Physiology. Lucie, what do you do to prepare for the expedition?
Ráčková: I’m preparing thoroughly on both professional and personal levels. I have studied the available literature and prepared research protocols, keeping in mind the results’ innovative potential and possible benefits. I also had to take into account practical aspects such as the schedules and personal space of the participants who will carry out their own work during the expedition. Regarding the measurement methods, the main issue is the absence of communication with the outside world and the limited possibilities of dealing with unforeseen problems and circumstances. Despite the thorough preparations, after arriving in Punta Arenas, Chile, I found out some of my sensors broke, so now I have to order replacement parts.
How does the measuring work, and in what ways is it unique?
Stress is a complex issue that requires complex solutions. That’s why we use not only traditional methods such as questionnaires or attention skills tests but also innovative methods. The Entrant device was developed by professor Dobrovolná together with some of our colleagues from the laboratory. It measures stress objectively using physiological parameters related to thermodynamic processes in our bodies. To put it simply, stress provokes an energy-intensive reaction, and we use the Entrant device to measure its intensity.
The explorers will regularly fill in questionnaires, their heart rate will be monitored, and they will take attention skills and decision making tests during which they will be measured by the Entrant. I will also keep a field journal recording the course of the expedition and interviewing some of the participants.
What advice would you give to our readers who would like to get rid of some of the stress in their lives?
Firstly, I’d like to say that stress needn’t always be harmful. Under certain conditions, it can motivate us to achieve greater goals. In extreme cases, it can be vital for our survival. However, if it impairs our ability to relax, think or even threatens our health, we should do our best to alleviate it. There are things we can do right away to reduce stress – take a deep breath, go for a walk or at least open the window and get some fresh air. In the long term, it is important to take care of yourself and have some stability in your life. It helps to create a routine that suits you. For instance, some simple activities we can do anywhere. It helps to eat healthy, exercise, sleep well and take cold showers.